Paper Clips as Relics, or Historical Research as an Encounter with the Sacred

One of my favorite aspects of producing our department’s weekly webisodes is that it has afforded our faculty the chance to film conversations about our discipline. All have been interesting, but the one we posted yesterday stood out: my conversation with Americanists Diana Magnuson and AnneMarie Kooistra about historical evidence and research.

As usual for these conversations, it’s presented in two halves: the first (starting at 3:32) focuses on the nature of primary sources; the second let us share stories and reflections on what it’s like to conduct original research (25:37).

What didn’t surprise me was that AnneMarie and Diana had insightful things to say about those topics. What did surprise me was how moving it was to hear Diana talk about her first visits to the U.S. National Archives: the excitement of diving into finding aids (“It was like Christmas!”), the aesthetic of the lamps in the reading room, and, well, paper clips…

…getting into the sources is just so exciting… to be touching these things that people created. I felt like I could have done a whole article on the changes in the paper clip, the way we affix paper… We have the pin, the brad… all these different things across the years…

One of our other colleagues was sitting in the room listening; after we finished that segment, she told us that she had started to cry when Diana talked about paper clips.

Paper clips throughout history

So what’s so emotive about a paper clip?

Earlier in the conversation, Diana had observed that her “heart [started] to pound” at the very thought of working with primary sources. When I asked why it was valuable to have students even in introductory courses interact with such evidence, she offered this explanation:

To me this is a person’s life; this is their experience. This is them speaking to us out of the past. In my classes we read them out together… because this is their voice. This is what is left of them… You want to hear from that person, their perspective: Why do they think that? Why do they have so much pain in this? Or why do they find this wrong or funny or confusing?

It’s why I always class history as one of the humanities. It’s a profoundly human (and, at its best, humane) discipline.

I especially resonated with Diana’s definition of primary sources as “what is left of” the people we study. Not just their words, but the physical objects they handled… Paper clips, say.

So “what is left of them” came back to mind later in the conversation when Diana talked about the pins, brads, and other clips fastening the documents she was reading in the National Archives. “I love how physical it is,” I responded, and started sharing my vivid memories of handling documents from the time of World War II, when wartime scarcity forced governments to use lower-quality paper that has discolored and somewhat disintegrated over time.

Then, perhaps unnecessarily, I took things in this direction:

I’ve sometimes thought being a historian, it’s like you’re encountering relics. In the same way that medieval Christians thought that the saints left behind these physical reminders imbued with holiness, there’s a little bit of a sense — not to make it sound too dramatic — there’s a little bit of a sense of the sacred of encountering someone who was important to someone… It almost makes me cautious just to handle it, but there’s something a little bit holy about walking into [the archive].

At this point, I think AnneMarie’s eyes were rolling. “My experience is so different,” she replied, and told of her research on the history of prostitution, where her task was trying to recover the truth when people had a vested interest in hiding it. And this is why I love my most strongly Reformed colleague, who always brings me back down to Creation (fallen, even if being redeemed and restored) whenever my Pietist self is too much heart and soul and too little head!

But hey, this is a Pietist blog. So let me double down on my “little bit holy” comment:

If all people are created in the image of God, there is something sacred about their lives. And it’s an extraordinary privilege to be called to tell their stories through the disciplined study of the artifacts — the relics — that their living left behind.

Historian readers: Am I off the rails here? Have you felt the sense of entering a sacred space as you engage in research?

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